Random jukebox – Enigma

One of the great things about Enigma is their (his) absurdly pretentious videos – sometimes they hit the mark, and other times, they miss spectacularly. I’ll let you make your own mind up about The Eyes of Truth.

Deep Forest – Made in Japan

By 1999, Deep Forest had already seen some huge hits with their first couple of albums, and had now settled into a somewhat comfortable space, pulling musicians together from around the world and adding electronic sounds and beats. So having taken many of the Comparsa guests on tour the preceding year, the live album Made in Japan was a natural next step.

It opens with Ekue Ekue, which is one of the better tracks from Comparsa (1998), and you can definitely hear an impressive live energy in the performance. Where it suffers a little here is from a fundamental cheesiness, and it’s the same for Green and Blue, too – it’s a good song, but not necessarily the best version of it. By 1999, Deep Forest had been supplanted by many younger and more successful musicians as France’s favourite export, and some of their melodies just sounded a bit naff. It’s sad, in a way, because you can hear that the singers are having a great time, but they do just sound a bit rubbish in places, particularly when the synth noodling extends a song by a whole minute.

The less energetic pieces are better – Deep Weather feels infinitely less frantic, while still retaining some of the live emotions of earlier tracks. While the Japanese version squeezes in another Comparsa track next, there is, fortunately, some space left for some earlier songs, as a series of tracks from Boheme (1995) follow. First is Bohemian Ballet, which is one of my favourites. The live vocal doesn’t quite work for me, honestly – despite the fact that I don’t speak any Hungarian, so can’t understand a word of it, the singer clearly can’t either, which means the emotion and energy feels a bit misplaced sometimes. It’s still a good song, but I’d maybe have given the singers a bit of a break at this point.

For Deep Folk Song, they do, and while it’s a bit of a mess at times, it’s pretty faithful to the album version. Then it’s back to the faux-Hungarian, with the lovely Freedom Cry. The delivery on this one is better, actually working pretty well, to my untrained ear. Yes, the accordion playing is a little bit too much on this one, particularly towards the end, but it’s a nice song.

The Boheme section closes out with Cafe Europa, a sweet instrumental from the tail end of the album. It’s strange, in a way, that they weren’t confident enough to mix the albums in with each other, particularly given the way that each seemed to have been a little less good than its predecessor. This is one of the better tracks from Boheme, though, and fits well here, although I wonder if the piano wankery at the end might have worked better visually than it does on audio.

Forest Power is next, taking us back to Comparsa. It’s a worthy performance, with a lot going on, but again, you have to wonder whether the visuals might have made a difference here – there just seems to be a lot of the performance that’s missing somehow.

By 1999, Deep Forest had already seen some huge hits with their first couple of albums, and had now settled into a somewhat comfortable space, pulling musicians together from around the world and adding electronic sounds and beats. So having taken many of the Comparsa guests on tour the preceding year, the live album Made in Japan was a natural next step.

It opens with Ekue Ekue, which is one of the better tracks from Comparsa (1998), and you can definitely hear an impressive live energy in the performance. Where it suffers a little here is from a fundamental cheesiness, and it’s the same for Green and Blue, too – it’s a good song, but not necessarily the best version of it. By 1999, Deep Forest had been supplanted by many younger and more successful musicians as France’s favourite export, and some of their melodies just sounded a bit naff. It’s sad, in a way, because you can hear that the singers are having a great time, but they do just sound a bit rubbish in places, particularly when the synth noodling extends a song by a whole minute.

The less energetic pieces are better – Deep Weather feels infinitely less frantic, while still retaining some of the live emotions of earlier tracks. While the Japanese version squeezes in another Comparsa track next, there is, fortunately, some space left for some earlier songs, as a series of tracks from Boheme (1995) follow. First is Bohemian Ballet, which is one of my favourites. The live vocal doesn’t quite work for me, honestly – despite the fact that I don’t speak any Hungarian, so can’t understand a word of it, the singer clearly can’t either, which means the emotion and energy feels a bit misplaced sometimes. It’s still a good song, but I’d maybe have given the singers a bit of a break at this point.

For Deep Folk Song, they do, and while it’s a bit of a mess at times, it’s pretty faithful to the album version. Then it’s back to the faux-Hungarian, with the lovely Freedom Cry. The delivery on this one is better, actually working pretty well, to my untrained ear. Yes, the accordion playing is a little bit too much on this one, particularly towards the end, but it’s a nice song.

The Boheme section closes out with Cafe Europa, a sweet instrumental from the tail end of the album. It’s strange, in a way, that they weren’t confident enough to mix the albums in with each other, particularly given the way that each seemed to have been a little less good than its predecessor. This is one of the better tracks from Boheme, though, and fits well here, although I wonder if the piano wankery at the end might have worked better visually than it does on audio.

Forest Power is next, taking us back to Comparsa. It’s a worthy performance, with a lot going on, but again, you have to wonder whether the visuals might have made a difference here – there just seems to be a lot of the performance that’s missing somehow, particularly as the guitar and vocal works draws to a crescendo towards the end. Then Hunting, with a great live vocal, but again, a whole load more messing around that probably worked well when you were there in person, and the crowd very obediently shout back at the singers when they chant random things, but really drags a bit on the CD, I’m sad to say.

That is, with regret, the general story with Made in Japan – it’s a worthy live performance, but the vast majority of tracks are taken from what I think most would agree is the least good of those early Deep Forest albums. Where are all the great hits from the debut eponymous album?

Oh, there they are. Forest Hymn didn’t quite make it onto the original release of Deep Forest, but made it onto later reissues, and it works well here. The thing is, there’s no reason why the early material wouldn’t fit amongst the works from Comparsa, and that’s illustrated well here. It’s definitely a Comparsa remix, but it’s an older and more established piece, and it entirely works.

Then, finally, comes Sweet Lullaby, although it starts in slightly odd form with a rippling acoustic guitar and vocal. After a minute or so, it’s back to where it belongs, with the original weird pad leads and vocal samples. It’s an interesting take, which would work well if it weren’t for the fact that this remains, still, Deep Forest‘s only live album. As it builds, it gets better, but you do have to wonder a little why they chose to release this performance above any others. Or maybe performing live was such an irregular occurrence that this, basically a live performance of Comparsa with a few extra bells and whistles, was the best we could have hoped for.

Quite why that was the penultimate encore rather than the last one is beyond me, but Madazulu, from Comparsa, is what we have to close the album. But having said that, Madazulu is probably the best track on the album, so maybe it isn’t such a questionable choice after all? Of all the decisions they made here, closing with this track is probably one of the least daft. You can hear all the energy of the performance here – maybe it isn’t such a bad album, after all?

Well, Made in Japan is a bit of a mixed bag, if the truth be told. If you like Comparsa, this is fine, but just not very different. If not, there isn’t a lot of other material here. Either way, the fact that it exists is fine, but it just seems a bit pointless without the visuals, that surely must have been amazing? Nice, but it’s fair to say that it’s a bit pointless.

This album is still widely available. There’s a Japanese version with some extra tracks from Comparsa, if you want them. I haven’t heard it, but I would struggle to believe it adds much.

Yello – Zebra

If you could pinpoint the period when Yello really found themselves, I think 1994’s Zebra would be a decent estimate. Now eight albums into their career, they had gone through the slightly silly novelty stage, tried serious pop, motorsport-inspired energetic electronic pop, and a very strong smattering of jazz. But it was with Zebra that they truly embraced dance music – maybe not quite for the first time, but it was certainly the first time they had dived this deep.

It opens with Suite 909, a big dance piece with trance bass and tribal beats. It does feel somewhat dated now – Yello were, perhaps, never quite the sonic trailblazers that their contemporaries were. It’s technically a prelude to Tremendous Pain, which we’ll hear later. If nothing else, as an opening track, it does make for a bit of a shock to the system.

It wouldn’t be Yello if it didn’t have its sillier moments, and second single How How is one. It’s catchy and clever – it fuses jazzy elements with acid breaks and dance beats – but you also can’t stop yourself from wondering who other than Yello would ever release anything this daft.

Night Train is probably as good as this album gets. It’s dark, with throbbing, tribal beats, and lyrics that echo the nocturnal feel of the track perfectly. The samples – I don’t recognise all of them, but Alison Moyet‘s cackle from her Yazoo days is definitely one of them – complement the track perfectly. This is quite brilliant.

Lead single Do It is next (although curiously it’s pushed back to track 2 of side B on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album). This is clever, actually – it’s a classic Yello track, but with clean, simple, dance production. It’s a great single to re-introduce us to the wacky Swiss duo after the three year break that preceded this album. Remixes on the single came from Thomas Fehlmann and Mark Picchiotti, so they were in illustrious company.

I… I’m in Love is next, another classic Yello moment with huge dance beats. As with much of this album, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t dated particularly well, so this is perhaps more a track for those who were there at the time than it is for people discovering this act for the first time. That’s alright, although I might have to revise my beginner’s guide recommendations.

S.A.X. is a bit of a surprise on an electronic dance album, full, as you might guess, of saxophone solos and chanted lyrics, among the tribal beats. It’s great, in its own special way, because you really can’t see that anybody else would have been doing anything like this. By itself, it’s hardly contemporary, but it is at least interesting.

But Yello have always had a more serious side to them, such as the huge Lost Again a decade or so earlier. Fat Cry is hardly serious, with its pitch-tweaked backing vocals, but it does channel that atmospheric sound. In a way I’m glad they don’t do things like that all the time, as it just makes them stand out all the more, but Fat Cry does grab you in a way that some of the earlier tracks may not have. In spite of the whistling in the melody half way through.

Final single Tremendous Pain follows, with some very confusing lyrics (“How do you spell / Suite 9-0-7?”) If you’re tied to the traditional structure of an album, you’ll probably struggle to reconcile this track with opener Suite 909, but then you’ll probably be struggling with Yello anyway – they had already been dropping remixes onto albums in odd places for the last couple of albums. Tremendous Pain is a good track, with a particularly catchy chorus, but as is also sometimes the case with Yello, the impenetrable lyrics make it a difficult listen at times.

Move Dance Be Born feels very Teutonic, as though they’re channelling a certain Düsseldorf quartet. It’s great, full of squawking processed vocal samples, more tribal beats, and lots of instructions to move, dance, and be born.

This is, in a way, a fairly short album, the second half of which is reserved for darker dance territory, as The Premix (How How) follows. It is, as the name somewhat confusingly suggests, a remix of the earlier track – this time with fast beats and acid bass, alongside bizarre squelchy beats. It’s an odd remix, and maybe the name tells us that it was actually recorded before the single. It’s different enough from the other version to comfortably secure a place here, but it is a strange inclusion.

Finally comes Poom Shanka. Yello have never been scared of throwing something completely unexpected at their listeners, and this is a fine example of that. For a Swiss group to bring Indian influences is really no less incongruous than someone from Liverpool doing the same thing, but somehow something doesn’t quite seem right here. If you put that out of your mind, what you have here is a beautiful, gentle piece of music which fits well on the end of this album, but the track might be over by the time you’ve really got the hang of it. I think, in the end, I like it a lot, though.

So Zebra is classic Yello in many ways – it’s not exactly groundbreaking, because you’ll have heard most of the sounds already on earlier releases, but it was contemporary for its time, and the mix of jazz and electronic influences is, as always, spot on. It has all the trademarks – such as crazy lyrics and insane vocal delivery, but for pretty much the first time, they have tapped dance culture in a way that would never really stop on subsequent albums. It’s an essential release for Yello, just perhaps a slightly impenetrable one for those who don’t know them well.

You can still find Zebra at all major retailers.